Near Misses – How Your Phone Can Undermine You

I heard this story on NPR’s Morning Edition (6 Sept 2019) and I knew I had to share it with my students. You can read listen to the story (2:52) or read a full transcript at The Distracting Draw of SmartPhones.

But let me cut straight to the surprising content, this story is not about using a smartphone instead of doing something else, it is about being near your phone while doing something else. The reporter, Shankar Vedantam, describes work done by a team of Harvard psychologists (their names are in the transcript – look them up):

Vedantam: They had volunteers come in to take cognitive tests, but there was a catch. Some volunteers were told to leave their smartphones in another room. Some were told to leave the phones in a bag or a pocket. And others were told to leave their phones on the desk next to them as they took the test. Now, all the phones were on silent. But big differences emerged between the volunteers as they took the test, especially when it came to understanding and solving novel problems.

And then one of the psychologists (Ward) delivers the punchline:

Ward: What we found is that people did better on these tasks the farther their phones were from them. So those who had their phones in another room did significantly better than those who had their phones on the desk right in front of them. And then those who had their phones in their pockets or their bags were sort of in the middle, between those two groups.

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